January 27, 2000
Changed My Life
For a time, I loved Harold Robbins, just as I loved the novels by Jacqueline Susann. When I was 13, and then 14 and 15, I read their low-brow books as a Real Life 101. I read Robbins' "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and learned how a man looks at a woman. I read "The Valley of the Dolls" to learn how a woman looks at a man. I read Robbins and Susann to discover how a Jew, an American Jew, looks at life.
I know what you must think of me. Gloria Steinem described the appeal of Jacqueline Susann novels to Susann's biographer Barbara Seaman this way: "'Valley of the Dolls' is for the reader who has put away comic books but isn't yet ready for editorials in the Daily News." I guess that was me.
But I had ambitions. For a long time I thought that the proper role of a Jewish novelist was to write stories of ambition and decay. In such stories, heroes and heroines rose from desperate beginnings, fired with desperate ambitions to have desperate love affairs, before they reached their desperate ends. I was ready, desperately. I knew that I'd have to camouflage my heroine's ethnic background; to keep the Jewishness subtle, if not excised. Being Jewish was a writer's permit, I believed, not her subject matter. After Jacqueline Susann, I found literature, which to me was Leon Uris. Philip Roth, who came next, was, in comparison, next to Proust who, though not being Jewish, was next to God.
I say all this to explain what Andrew Bergman's new movie, "Isn't She Great" gets right. The desperation part. Jackie Susann, who died in 1974 of breast cancer, was so desperate for success at the time she met Irving that she was even willing to write a book. She knew nothing about literature, but had failed in everything else, including demonstrating cookware in the grocery store.
It's this mixture of ambition and desperation that has been part of the Jewish experience. It's the part that most of us are now eager to forget. We've arrived, and our children all go to universities. We forget that once upon a time we lacked pretenses and read for experience and fun. And we wrote out of personal destiny, because we must.
Bergman makes the most of this. He reminds us that once upon a time, not so long ago, Jews were outsiders, and outsiders, with nothing to lose, tell the truth. That outsider status was the major reason, as opposed to our erudite literary sensibility, for our success in the media. We knew how to speak directly from the gut. (Today there are a few of these genre-benders left: Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon. But as I say, I've moved on to God.)
Jackie, along with her husband/publicist, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), transformed the marketing of books, creating the national book tour. The success of the book tour, as "Isn't She Great?" makes clear, is that it brought vulgar, Jewish commercial sensibilities to the American heartland. Do not be embarrassed, the movie thinks this is a good thing. The movie (based on an article by her one-time editor Michael Korda) takes us back to where it all began, when the book business was an effete WASP enterprise. Visiting the rarefied cloister of book publishing in the '50s, few of us would ever go back.
When Jackie and Irving take the fey Korda surrogate, called here Michael Hastings (David Hyde Pierce ) to Sardi's for another overstuffed lunch, they literally vacuum the pomposity out of the air. Midler announces to the maitre d' that they want seats for "two adults and a gentile." Why does that line ring so true? It's the excess, stupid. Midler, playing Susann in all her New York-Jewish glory is undaunted by Hastings' disapproval, unfazed by America in all its pretenses. It is Hyde Pierce, the classic WASP who is transformed by the Jews. He's Pygmalion in reverse.
Bergman and screenwriter Paul Rudnick have merciless fun at the expense of the American heartland on the book tour itself. Jackie and Irving barge into quiet bookstores bombarding pasty-faced "American Gothic" clerks; Susann is a whole circus in a tight-fitting dress. Still the film insists, the whole country is better for the journey the Mansfields were on.
The irony, of course, is that Susann, for all her truth-telling about the world of ambitious Hollywood, could not tell the truth about herself. Her autistic son, her fight with cancer, even her Jewish heritage, were all secrets unknown by the public until after her death. Her limited foray into first person was a biography of her dog, Josephine.
Still, for all her limits, Jacqueline Susann is now part of a venerable pantheon of the Jewish low-brow. Deny them if you want, but what's the point? America was eagerly awaiting what Jews had to offer, from burlesque and vaudeville to movies and novels. It's a short leap from Jacqueline Susann to Lenny Bruce and then to the political activists who brought us the civil rights, Vietnam and feminist movement. It's a stretch, you think, but not all that much.
As for me, I've found that writing bad, compulsively readable literature is hard work. I've tried to duplicate her voice, her irony and her bitterness on several occasions. Maybe I haven't lived enough.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life."
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.